Opening with a coffin emerging through the surface of a windswept lake, the new film by Mark and Michael Polish continues their exploration of a strange, mystical America. Grander in scale – but no less bizarre – than their previous work, it is a haunting and beautiful film, whose imagery remains in the memory.
The drama unfolds over a landscape under threat from a dam, which will submerge the area forever. A collection of yes-men have been ordered to ensure that the last remaining residents leave their homes before they are submerged; a melancholy old minister who refuses to vacate his calling; a man whose memories are bound up in his house; a circus sideshow collection of ghosts (or angels) awaiting the second coming of Christ, who may just be Irwin, a dying boy who is fabricating this world from the stories told to him by the minister. Their fates appear sealed by the homes they live in. There is no wall in the rear of the chapel, so the congregation watch grazing animals as the minister gives his sermon. Another inhabitant has designed his house like the ark.
Like Jim Jarmusch’s West in Dead Man, the Polish brother’s world is a jumble of recollections and imaginings, and an ethereal air permeates the entire film. As in a dream, the stories appear as fragments, sewn together to create a tapestry of memories, in an attempt to map out a world caught between life and death, both of the land and the lives existing in it. As the ‘yes-men’ go about their work, death is everywhere; in the presence of the angels; the graveyard being relocated; and etched in the faces of the people forced to move – witnessing the passing away of their old life.
The film has occasional splashes of humour, avoiding an overly funereal mood, although it occasionally jars with the drama. The appearance of well-known actors in small parts also proves to be distracting, although this is compensated by a grizzled performance from Nick Nolte as the priest and the stoic presence of James Woods, whose reticence in applying force to remove those unwilling to leave their homes, is compounded by his unwillingness to have his wife’s body exhumed from the local cemetery.
The DVD offers a fine transfer of the film, which still fares as well on the small screen as Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. To compensate, there is a quirky TV spot about the Polish Brothers returning home for a screening of the film, an photo gallery and a lengthy interview with the brothers. Most impressive of all is the short film, Bareknuckle Film Making: The Making of Northfork. Directed by Matt Polish, the documentary offers insights into the making of the film. Though featuring good interviews with Woods, Nolte and the writer/producer/director team, the true star of the film turns out to be the Polish brothers’ father, who as production manager, and with a great deal of pragmatism and chutzpah, created the world of Northfork.